In 74 of 100 legislative races on the November ballot, candidates face no real competition: Not one of their opponents has collected even $1,000 and some face no opposition at all.
Yet these 74 candidates between July and October together raised $8.5 million from corporations, unions, industry groups and others with a stake in how state laws are written. These candidates don’t need to work for reelection -- voters of their own parties dominate their districts by such wide margins that their seats are safe -- but they continue to attract or solicit donations.
Such donations trouble government watchdogs, who say they are made to win the goodwill of soon-to-be lawmakers.
“Why would anybody give a campaign contribution to somebody who has no opposition?” asked Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a nonprofit, nonpartisan group in Los Angeles. “There’s one reason. It’s not a campaign contribution; it’s a government-access payment.”
Spokespersons for interest groups say they donate for more reasons than to help elect candidates they favor. Lawmakers use the money to pay for meals, hotels and travel, to send Christmas cards and myriad other “officeholder expenses.” And many lawmakers still buy yard signs, billboards and fliers, even though they face little competition, to make themselves familiar to voters.
“Almost everybody out there is looking to run for another office,” said Jack Flanigan, a longtime Capitol lobbyist, “and they’re looking for name ID.”
The donations reveal more than who is trying to influence the Legislature.
Fund-raising has become the main criterion by which lawmakers are judged by their leaders in this era of term limits, in which lawmakers have just a few years to make a mark before they must find new jobs. Candidates strut their ambition through how much they’ve raised and how much they’ve given to help the party cause.
“Your ability to raise money determines your status on the food chain,” said Assemblyman Joe Canciamilla (D-Pittsburg). Because of term limits, he will leave the Assembly next month after six years. “It determines your committee assignment, your chairmanship, your status among other members.”
Of the $8.5 million raised between July 1 and Oct. 25 by candidates coasting to victory, $2 million was raised by Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles). No Republican is running against him and he has done little campaigning in his downtown district, but as speaker, he is expected to financially back the few Democrats facing competition.
The other 73 candidates raised on average $89,000 between July 1 and Oct. 25.
Legislative candidates with no or token opposition have in recent weeks sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to state and county Democratic or Republican parties or donated directly to the few candidates with formidable opponents.
A few stand out for their fundraising prowess. Los Angeles City Council member Alex Padilla, a Democratic shoo-in for a San Fernando Valley Senate seat, raised more money than any other legislative candidate but Nunez during that period, more than $400,000. That’s more than twice the amount raised by former Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, a Sacramento Democrat rumored to want to lead the Senate after Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata (D-Oakland) is ousted by term limits in 2008.
Padilla would not say whether he hopes to some day lead the Senate, and he explained his aggressive fundraising by saying: “I’m a proud Democrat and there are other candidates that need help.”
Among Democratic Assembly candidates with token opposition, those who raised and shared the most in the last couple of months include Fiona Ma, a San Francisco County supervisor; former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Feuer, who is practically certain to win the Assembly district that includes Beverly Hills and West Hollywood; and Mike Eng, seeking to replace his wife, Assemblywoman Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park).
Kevin de Leon, a childhood friend of Nunez seeking to represent Los Angeles east of Hollywood and west of Alhambra, faces a Republican opponent who has raised $3,000. But De Leon is almost certain to win the heavily Democratic district. He has raised $270,000 since July 1 and given $73,200 to various Democratic Party committees.
Not coincidentally, these same names are among those circulated in the Capitol as possible contenders to lead the Assembly after Nunez leaves because of term limits in 2008.
Another notable fund-raiser among the Democratic shoo-ins for Assembly is Laura Richardson, the Southern California director for Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante. She is running for a district that includes Wilmington, Carson and part of Long Beach. Richardson has raised $224,000 and given $75,000 to various Democratic Party committees.
Among Democratic Assembly members coasting to reelection, the biggest, most generous fund-raiser between July and October was Alberto Torrico of the East Bay city of Newark.
Torrico raised and gave away $239,000 to Democratic Party committees and funds run by Nunez. Last month, Nunez named him chairman of the Assembly committee that handles gambling, tobacco and alcohol legislation. It is known as a “juice” committee because it involves industries known for giving abundant campaign contributions.
“The goal of putting people on those committees isn’t that those people will just raise money for themselves,” Canciamilla said. “It’s that money will trickle to the party, other candidates, the caucus.”
Assemblyman Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), recently named chairman of the powerful appropriations committee, is running for reelection in a district where only 10% of voters are Republican. Still, he said, he is on the phone constantly, drumming up money for other Democratic candidates.
“I’m in Sacramento likely for six years, maybe longer, maybe not, so the time I’m here I want to be as engaged as possible,” he said.
In August, Leno gave $28,500 each to the San Diego, Sacramento, San Luis Obispo and Stanislaus county Democratic central committees. In September, he gave $25,000 to the state Democratic Party. Those parties can funnel unlimited donations to candidates in the toughest races.
Leno raised $46,900 in a single week ending Oct. 17, most in $1,000 amounts from groups including AT&T; employees, unions representing state engineers and scientists, the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens, the Gabrielino-Tongva tribe of Santa Monica and the California Mobilehome Parkowners Alliance.
Leno said he’d rather be writing bills to introduce next year. He said he wishes campaigns were financed by taxpayers, not special interests.
“I don’t support the current system,” Leno said, “but that doesn’t mean I can ignore it unless I want to be ignored.”
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